Thursday, December 31, 2015

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2015

90% of every best TV of the year feature makes some mention of "Peak TV," a term coined by FX president John Landgraf to explain the current overabundance of not just television shows, but quality television shows.  Even I've introduced at least three of my pieces this year by talking about this concept.  It's an annoying term, especially given its ubiquity, but it's also useful to describe today's landscape.  For obsessive completionists like myself, there's just too much TV.  The total number of shows I watched regularly in 2015 was a whopping 125, spread across 36 different networks.  Trust me, it's as exhausting as it sounds.

But this so-called state of Peak TV has also led to an interesting niche-ification of television.  Just a decade ago, there were 10 or 15 shows that almost everyone could agree upon as "the best shows on television."  And they usually boiled down to only a couple types of shows.  Now, great TV comes in all shapes and sizes.  So if you don't like that show all the critics are currently obsessing over, there are 50 more for you to try out.

For example, I don't like Bojack Horseman very much.  Critics are in love with it and think that it's an honest depiction of depression, when I find all of its emotional beats to be extremely hollow.  Season two of Transparent, which has a 93 on Metacritic, was a bit of a mess if you ask me.  Fargo, the show everyone won't shut up about being the best thing they've seen on television in a long time?  Kind of overrated!  And even still, there is an endless supply of shows that I loved, as you'll see from my list.  What a time to be alive.

The rules: Shows are considered for this list based on the episodes they aired in 2015.  This is a pretty plain and simple rule for cable dramas, where full seasons usually air within a single calendar year.  However, it gets slightly messy when considering network shows, which usually air the first half of their season in the fall and the second half starting January of the next year.  So something like, say, Fresh Off the Boat would be judged based on the second half of its first season (which aired at the beginning of the year) and the first half of its second season (which started in the fall of this year).  As for what constitutes a TV show, anything that airs on, you know, a TV station counts.  But shows that air exclusively on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon count too.  Okay, everything clear now?  Good, let's get this list started...

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My 20 Favorite Films of 2015

I start my best films of the year list the same way every year, by mentioning the movies I had no capability of seeing and therefore weren't eligible for this list.  Many of the year's best and most acclaimed films often get released late in December in New York and Los Angeles only, in order to qualify for awards season.  Because critics get early screenings for these films, they appear on end of the year lists, but I'm not an official critic so I don't get that luxury!  It's very frustrating.  So here are some movies that could have possibly made my list were it not for the fact that they're not truly out yet: Anomalisa, 45 Years, The Look of Silence, James White, The Revenant, The Assassin.

Due to having less time this year and trying to focus more on older films, I saw slightly less new movies than I did in 2014, but enough to say with confidence that 2015 was a fantastic year for film.  We got great films of all shapes and sizes: blockbusters, animated films, foreign films, middle budget movies, horror, non-theatrical releases.  There were some massive disappointments -- looking at you, Spectre! -- but 2015 batted a pretty high average overall.  Here's to hoping 2016 is even better.

The rules: As long as a film got an official release in 2015, it was eligible for placement on this list.  This is an important thing to remember, since many of the films that appear in my top 20 premiered at film festivals in 2014, but didn't get released in theaters until this year.  And in the case where a film got no theatrical release, then a VOD debut in 2015 will make it eligible.  Now that all of that has been cleared up, on to the actual list...

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2015

2015 felt like a more enjoyable year for music than 2014.  There's always good stuff to find in any year, but there was more of it this year and it was better.  I could stretch my list out to 40 albums and it would still only consist of records I liked quite a bit.

This year also had more albums that seemed to grab the entire internet at large.  Of course, the one that towered above the rest was Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, which is currently running laps around everyone else on end of the year lists.  But there was also stuff like Sufjan Stevens, Jamie xx, Tame Impala, Deafheaven, and Father John Misty.  There was even a jazz album that the big blogs loved! (I haven't had the time to sit down with Kamasi Washington's triple album The Epic in full, but the bits I've heard of it certainly make the praise seem warranted.)

My top 20 only represents a fraction of the diversity of greatness we saw in 2015, but I'm still satisfied with how it turned out.  There's rap, punk, R&B, pop, old favorites, exciting newcomers, and an out-of-left field choice or two.

The rules: Due to the constant changing of the way music gets released, anything can be an album for the sake of this list.  You especially have to play fast and loose given the fact that many rap mixtapes function as albums anyway.  So LPs, mixtapes, 40-minute songs, EPs if they're good enough -- they're all albums to me!  If something got released in another country in a previous year, but got an American release this year, it works on a case-by-case basis (although there are no examples of that this year).  Otherwise, the eligibility window is that the album has to have been released between January 1, 2015 and today.  That means that D'Angelo's Black Messiah, which came out at the very end of 2014 but has appeared on many publications' lists this year, will not show up here.  (Plus it was my number 5 last year, since I actually wait until the end of the year to finalize my lists.)  So now with that bit of business out of the way, on to the actual list...

Friday, November 27, 2015

Spotlight makes the mundane riveting

Journalism isn't an inherently cinematic profession.  After all, nailing down a story, researching the details, and hashing out a piece doesn't exactly lend itself to a dramatic viewing experience.  Those elements can be employed as seasoning on top of a film's structure, but it's rare that they can sustain themselves when they're asked to be the film's structure.  Like Zodiac and All the President's Men before it, Spotlight is a bold exception, managing to spin an engrossing yarn of a narrative out of the journalistic process.

The story follows "Spotlight," a branch of the Boston Globe that focuses on long-term investigative pieces, and their real-life efforts to uncover the widespread pattern of sexual molestation of children within the Catholic Church in 2001.  Spurred on by the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team (Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d'Arcy James) set forth on interviewing alleged victims and lawyers in past settlement cases in order to get to the bottom of this institutional corruption.  Spotlight fights against any kind of assumptions one would make when approaching a film about this story.  It's a movie about the grind of journalists, but it's absolutely riveting; an investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic church that ends up being one of the most crowd-pleasing films of the year.

Most of that comes from writer/director Thomas McCarthy's lively script, which he co-wrote with Josh Singer.  He exhibits the same terrific ear for dialogue that he did in previous gems like The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win.  Spotlight is full of little conversational touches that you rarely ever hear in movies, but happen all the time in real life.  And McCarthy knows how to move the story along too.  There's a lean forward momentum to the film, and as the investigation just keeps cracking open wider, the audience is right there with the characters, marveling at every introduction of an additional piece of damning evidence.  

There's an authenticity on display that makes it feel like a love letter to journalism, maybe even the last full breath of print media.  Little details spring out about the state of the Globe, its relation to the competition, and the painstaking steps that go into carving out a story.  We see characters running around to procure important documents, attempting to follow leads to the very end of the line, and scribbling notes furiously on a pad as new information is revealed to them.  This is a film about process, which sounds dry -- and McCarthy films it with a clear, unfussy visual sensibility -- but that's only because he knows the story is so compelling and the writing has enough inertia to carry itself.

That's not to say that Spotlight isn't interesting visually.  McCarthy makes a variety of smart choices that let us know that stakes of this story, strictly from the way he frames scenes.  Just look at the way every street shot of Boston shows how tight-knit this community is.  We get a sense of how this scandal could exist just below the surface for so long, why even after all that has happened, people are willing to let most of it get swept under the rug.  We see the way churches loom over every street; the power of the church is evident in almost every frame.  That's pretty much Spotlight's modus operandi, it's so restrained and controlled that it never goes for any boldfaced declarations.  There are no forced stakes or sentimentality, just subtle, effective drama.  It's an important story that never puffs its chest out about it, which is what makes it feel even more important.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Flesh and Bone

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Sundays at 8:00 PM on Starz

Going into 2015, Starz's dark ballet drama Flesh and Bone was one of my most anticipated new shows of the year.  Part of that was due to its pedigree, which boasted show-running from Moira Walley-Beckett (most famously known for writing Breaking Bad's "Ozymandias" episode), a pilot directed by David Michod (Animal Kingdom, The Rover, Enlightened), and cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, True Detective).  Part of it was caused by fierce longing for my beloved Bunheads and the desire to see something -- anything -- involving ballet, even if the similarities stopped there.  But as time passed, hesitance began to mingle with that excitement.  First, there was the news that the show had been changed into an eight-episode limited series: rarely a good sign for something initially conceived to run for multiple seasons, but especially ominous for a show on a network known for renewing series for additional seasons before the previous one has even aired any episodes.  Then there's been the uniformly negative tweets about the show from TV critics in the past few weeks.  It was looking like Flesh and Bone was going to be the biggest disappointment of the year.

Now that I've seen the pilot, I don't think it's the dud everyone is making it out to be.  In fact, I quite like what I've seen so far.  Much credit is due to those involved with this project who made me excited about it in the first place.  Though Walley-Beckett isn't able to exhibit the storytelling chops she showed on Breaking Bad yet, there's some solid, impactful dialogue in this initial episode.  (Occasionally it devolves into too much "fuckity fuck," but that's to be expected on Starz.)  And the partnership of David Michod and Adam Arkapaw gives the pilot a muted look, but one that is crisp and beautiful nonetheless.  Flesh and Bone provides a gritty, insider's look at the fascinating world of ballet.  Best of all, it feels real and authentic, probably helped by the fact that all of the actors are also professional dancers.  Michod shoots all the important details with precise close-ups, as we see toenails fall off, shoes come apart at the seams, and limbs stretch in impossible directions.

The moments where actual dancing occurs are absolutely breathtaking.  There's a poetry to the way these bodies are able to move, and when the story falls away to simply showcase this artistry is when the pilot is at its best.  Unfortunately, the further it gets away from the action -- as it does more often than you would like -- the less successful it becomes.  We're introduced to main character Claire (Sarah Hay) as she escapes an unsatisfying life in Pittsburgh to try out for the American Ballet Company in New York.  She's an archetype we've seen again and again, and the "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed newbie gets turned out by the seedy world she enters" arc feels a little by-the-numbers.  Along the way, there's a detour into a storyline about an exotic dance club, and it almost seems like we spend more time there than in the ballet studio.  There's also some material involving the homeless man (Justified's Damon Herriman) who lives outside of Claire's apartment.  Oh, and because this is Starz, there's tons of sex and nudity.  But the whole time, you'll wonder when you're going to get back to the real goods: the ballet.

Critics have had some problems with the series' tone, many tossing around the phrase "misery porn" to describe it.  They certainly aren't wrong to apply that label, but the show doesn't deserve all of the negative connotation that comes with it.  So far this show seems relentlessly bleak, piling on as many "dark cable drama" trappings as possible, but at least it's grim in a compelling way.  It's that mixture of being dour but digestible that makes Flesh and Bone so fascinating.  At least for now, the show seems like its reaching for something, and though it could fall flat on its face in the next seven weeks, it's interesting enough that I'm more than willing to give it a twirl.

Grade: B

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Thank Your Lucky Stars: Beach House's 2nd album in 2 months

Beach House seem like a slow and methodical band.  Each of their first four albums came out two years between one another, and it's easy to imagine them using that entire timespan to carefully craft their precise, insular tunes.  That's why it was so shocking a month ago when the band announced via Twitter that they were going to be releasing a new album only two months after the release of their excellent Depression Cherry.  Even as the release date inched closer on the calendar, Thank Your Lucky Stars still felt unreal.  Could it be?  Did they really have another set of new songs that they were ready to unleash on the world?

Well, Thank Your Lucky Stars is here and feels nothing like a toss-off either.  These tracks are just as tight and meticulously constructed as the ones on Depression Cherry, unlocking themselves slowly over the course of many exploratory listens.  In a way, the record feels like vintage Beach House, if such a thing exists.  When discussing the duo back in their early days, I often described their music as "Halloween meets Valentine's Day."  Over the years, they slowly scraped off the Halloween half until all that remained was huge, gauzy dream pop.  Thank Your Lucky Stars makes an effort to bring the balance back, and it's a refreshing return.  When's the last time we heard something like the spooky, vaguely sinister "She's So Lovely," or the croaking synth lead of "Common Girl"?  In recalling those older sounds, the band really emphasizes just how far they had progressed away from it, putting to bed those notions that they've been making the same album over and over.  Beach House finds a way to carve out distinct plots in a single sonic space, and this album is no different.

In the tweets that announced Thank Your Lucky Stars, the band wrote, "We are very excited, it's an album being released the way we want.  It's not a companion to Depression Cherry or a surprise or b-sides."  It's true too, this album is not an afterthought or a series of songs that weren't good enough to make it on an album with the typical promotional cycle.  In fact, the songs on Thank Your Lucky Stars don't sound like they were made in the same sessions, or even the same head space, as Depression Cherry.  Still, it's hard not to think of the ways these two records contrast and complement each other.  The songs on Depression Cherry feel more glossy and blown-out, they're constructed to be so large you can't wrap your arms around them to hold them down.  This album is made up of tracks that feel more tangible -- it's the darker, dustier cousin of what we heard a few months ago.  Songs like "One Thing" or "Elegy to the Void" may crack open in their second halves, but it's nothing like the swirl of a "PPP."  That doesn't mean this record is less enjoyable, it just holds its pleasures closer to its chest.

Some critics have been acting like this album is ruining the band's mystique, that coming so shortly after Depression Cherry diminishes it in some way.  But honestly, it makes this album even more of an achievement, in that it shows off Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally's ability to create two distinct, but equally compelling records without needing to come up for air or reset themselves.  I've heard people referring to this as "minor Beach House."  But I've also heard Thank Your Lucky Stars itself, and it's another set of beautiful, emotionally overwhelming songs.  There's nothing minor about it.

Pilot Talk 2015: Week of 10/25/2015

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Supergirl (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
Superheroes are beginning to flood TV as much as they have been flooding the movie market over the last few years, to the point where there's a show to scratch each itch you may have as a viewer.  Arrow's got the whole brooding Nolan-esque vibe covered, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is often a superhero-adjacent spin on something like G.I. Joe or The A-Team, and The Flash delivers a straight-from-the-comics level of splashiness.  Supergirl; created by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Ali Adler; is CBS' effort to finally enter the game, and it ends up filling its own unique niche as well.  Though Berlanti is also responsible for Arrow and The Flash, Supergirl winds up feeling much more like his non-superhero shows (Everwood, Jack & Bobby), except it just happens to have a super-powered individual at the center of it.

That individual is Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), who comics-savvy viewers will know as Superman's cousin.  She was sent down to Earth to protect him, but complications led to her landing years later and being raised as a normal girl by the family who found her.  As present-day Kara, who's currently working at a media conglomerate while trying to hide her powers, Benoist is a real superstar.  Some are going to find her performance a little too much, but it's absolutely great.  She's all wide, darting eyes; nervous laughter; and wild gesticulating -- it's hard not to be charmed by it.

There are some rough spots to the pilot that keep it from being wholly successful, like the interminable exposition dump required to get to the jumping-off point of the show.  However, the zippy Silver Age tone of the episode sweeps you away in a fashion that makes those flaws easier to swallow.  Even the special effects, which seem a little chintzy at first, begin to feel deliberately stylized in a way that's perfect for a series like this.  A few fight scenes are peppered into the pilot and they've got a surprising amount of heft to them, which is pretty essential for anything relating to Superman or Supergirl.  It may seem like critics are placing a lot of hope into the idea of what Supergirl can be, but the pilot itself is pretty enjoyable on its own too.
Grade: B+

Wicked City (ABC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
Must we keep doing this?  Wicked City, ABC's period piece about the seedy streets of the Sunset Strip in 1982, is another one of those shows about how killing is sexy.  It's not really about that -- it's about a serial killer named Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick) and the detectives (Jeremy Sisto and Gabriel Luna) investigating his murders -- but it secretly is.  Kent's first kill occurs while he's receiving a blowjob from a woman, and the rest of the violence in the pilot is similarly sexualized, which the show thinks is tantalizing but it's actually just gross and boring.  Nothing feels fresh as cliches abound, such as Kent's penchant for making women be as still as corpses while he's having sex with them.  Along the way, he meets Betty Beaumontaine (Erika Christensen) a woman who's got a "killer's instinct" and -- you guessed it -- just needs somebody to bring it out of her.  On the other side of the episode is the standard police procedural stuff, which ends up being even less surprising than the proto Bonnie and Clyde routine that Westwick and Christensen are doing.  What a plodding, misshapen episode this is.  It has all the momentum of a slug.  There's so much set up that by the end, it doesn't feel like a satisfying hour of television that can stand on its own.  It's more like a fragment of a story.  A really bad fragment.
Grade: D

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Mondays at 8:00 on The CW

Who would have thought that Pushing Daisies would have so much influence?  Bryan Fuller's cancelled-too-soon gem seemed like an outlier when it was on the air, what with its quirky flights of fancy, flowery narration, vivid color palette, and cheery optimism with a dash of macabre.  But more than five years after the show concluded its run, we're starting to see its roots take hold.  You could find many of Daisies' signature qualities in last fall's breakout hit, Jane the Virgin, a zippy spin on telenovelas that features a "Latin Lover Narrator" and onscreen comments via typewriter print.  And you can see even more of its influence in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the new show that The CW is smartly pairing with Jane the Virgin.

Like Jane, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a title and premise that make passersby think that it's going to be terrible, but it actually turns out to be one of the most refreshing and effervescent shows on television.  The premise in question involves a woman named Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom, who also co-wrote the pilot) who uproots her hectic life as a lawyer in New York to follow Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), a guy she had a fling with 10 years ago at summer camp, back to his small hometown of West Covina, California after she randomly bumps into him on the street.  Bloom is absolutely magnetic, and she's a large part of why this pilot works so well.  She's got a springy energy that brings her character's neuroses to the forefront in a way that's both endearing and entertaining.

The whole episode itself has a pep to match its lead, moving along like its been pumped full of caffeine, jokes and songs flying at the audience a mile per minute.  But there's also a deep undercurrent of sadness that runs through Ex-Girlfriend, this idea that Rebecca has to just keep charging forward because any hint of slowing down would cause her to come to grips with the fact that she's depressed and completely obsessed with some guy that she barely dated when she was 16 years old.  Before leaving New York, Rebecca constantly sees an ad centered around the question "When was the last time you were truly happy?," and you get the sense that she's only fixating on Josh because she associates him with the last time in her life that she felt real joy.  That's some dark stuff for a musical comedy to be grappling with, but it completely works.

Marc Webb stepped behind the camera to direct the pilot, and more so than anything he's done in a while, this feels like the perfect use of his talents.  The episode really pops visually, its bright colors and elaborate detail complementing the zany energy of the writing and performances.  Webb made his bones directing music videos, so there's an authenticity and high-production value to musical interludes like the endlessly entertaining "Sexy Getting Ready Song."  Not to mention the fact that the big number in the first half of the episode resembles the iconic song-and-dance scene from his debut feature film, (500) Days of Summer.

This was originally a Showtime pilot that was apparently much raunchier (even containing some kind of blowjob scene), but you can't really tell that the pilot was toned down in any way.  Its chipper, sunny vibe feels like it was always meant for The CW.  You can tell there was editing for length more so than for content.  The original incarnation of the first episode was 30 minutes, but it had to be bumped up to fit the hour-long standards of The CW (though without commercials it stands at a slim 39 minutes and 55 seconds).  As a result, there are times where the structure of the episode doesn't seem as sound, especially in the second half when a few scenes start to feel like they're lasting a beat or two too long.  Yet it's not enough to knock the episode down any pegs.  This is by far the best pilot of the very weak fall season.

Grade: A-

Addendum: Because I'm a failure -- a busy and tired failure! -- this review is coming a week late, which gave me some time to watch the next episode as well.  Second episodes for shows like this are crucial, because these high-energy, tonally tenuous series tend to burn out very quickly.  I don't think this week's episode was as much of a mess as some critics seem to, but it certainly doesn't maintain the quality of pilot.  When a show has to churn out as many musical numbers as it seems like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is going to, some of them are bound to be clunkers.  And "I'm So Good at Yoga" was truly awful.  I also think the writers need to transition away from Rebecca's obsession with Josh being the show's only focus, especially since Josh is kind of dull.  Still, Bloom is so terrific and the show seems to be embracing its own dark weirdness, when it could have easily tried to become safer and more conventional.  It's going to be fun to see where this goes.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Casual

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

New episodes premiere every Wednesday on Hulu

In case you haven't heard (or seen), we are in the age of "Peak TV."  There are so many new shows pouring out of every crack and corner that it can be overwhelming, but this expansion of the industry has allowed spaces to be carved out for shows that would have no place in the TV landscape five to ten years ago.  And that has never been more pronounced than in the influx of "indie movie TV shows," those low-key, natural, often hookless series that feel like a film festival entry stretched out to ten episodes.  In the past two years, we've seen Sundance types like Jill Soloway and the Duplass Brothers move over to television with Transparent and Togetherness, respectively.  Get ready to welcome a new member to the fold in Casual, Hulu's latest series, directed and produced by Jason Reitman.

Reitman may be a bigger name than Soloway and the Duplasses, but he brings the same small scale to Casual that they bring to their shows.  The series revolves around the lives of Valerie (Michaela Watkins), a recently divorced psychiatrist; her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), the co-founder of a popular dating website; and her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), who is sarcastic and into photography (because aren't they all?).  This is usually the first part of a premise, the setup for the thing that pulls everything together and gives the viewer an undeniable way into the show.  With Casual, this is the premise in its entirety.  Sure, there's the fact that they all live together and as a result are a little too close, but mostly this show is depicts them going about their normal lives, dating and floundering and getting into uncomfortable situations.

Television is still so dominated by high-concept, high-drama shows that series like Casual continue to feel like a welcome change of pace, but so far the show lacks any qualities that make it as essential as some of its peers.  It has neither gentle amiability of Togetherness nor the unique perspective of Transparent.  And yet the two episodes that Hulu released this past week have a shaggy, sleepy quality that's oddly compelling.  There are many aspects of these initial half-hours that grate, like the forced rawness of some of the dialogue, or the artsy teen cliches that construct Laura's character, but the chemistry between the leads goes a long way in smoothing out those bumps.  Critics who have seen the whole season seem a little more positive, so let's hope the show finds another gear.

Pilot: B
Second episode: B-

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 3 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Blood & Oil (ABC, Sundays at 9:00 PM)
ABC's Blood & Oil, its new Dallas-meets-One-Tree-Hill series, is a soap opera without the soap.  Or maybe it's the opera that's missing.  I can't tell, but either way this pilot left a whole lot to be desired.  It tells the story of a young couple (Chace Crawford and Rebecca Rittenhouse, as beautiful as they are boring) who move to North Dakota after the biggest oil discovery in American history occurs in the area.  Not long after they arrive, they get caught up in get rich quick schemes, simmering family squabbles, and tumultuous local politics.  Unfortunately, this feels like the story of a two-hour movie that got stuffed into the one-hour pilot of an ongoing TV show.  Everything seems so rushed, and hey show feels like it's burning through plot as the main couple get rich and become broke about six different times in the episode.  But for all the things that are going on in the pilot, none of it is particularly interesting.  The one saving grace is the handsome direction by Jonas Pate, who delivers what is far and away the best looking pilot of the fall so far.  He gives this North Dakota town a very real texture, showing the open plains with a grand, cinematic scope.  Ultimately, Blood & Oil is like its two leads at the center: pretty, but also pretty boring.
Grade: C-

Code Black (CBS, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
There is so much good in this pilot that it makes me sad that there is also so much bad in it.  The show's namesake comes from a term used to denote when a hospital has too many patients and not enough resources to go around.  An average hospital in America is on code black about five times per year, the opening title card reads.  In the hospital where thus show takes place, it occurs 300 times per year.  So that's an over-the-top premise to set a series up with, and the pilot opens on a scene that's so grim and graphic that it's almost comical, but there's a beautiful workmanlike quality to Code Black.  In times of crisis, characters talk quickly and over each other, and the script doesn't seem to care if you pick up on the nuts and bolts of it all.  That's keeping in tune with the show's whole goal, which aims to present the hospital drama without an flash or adornment.  Most television hospitals are lit very brightly, but this pilot has a grungy, claustrophobic feel to it.

Though the setting and tone feel very unlike what we see on TV, this episode is bogged down by some horribly cliched dialogue.  Characters regularly spout generic lines like "I'm going to kill save his life" and "I'm not the doctor he wants, I'm the doctor he needs" and "You know what that sounds like to me?  A typical night in this hospital."  And though the medical situations the show presents are gripping at first, everything eventually starts to feel a little too claustrophobic.  More moments to breath would've been nice, but we don't get that.  Instead, it's a monotonous pounding of bleakness that becomes numbing pretty quickly.
Grade: C

Dr. Ken (ABC, Fridays at 8:30 PM)
Remember when Ken Jeong felt like a revelation?  He was once just that hilarious guy who popped up in movies like Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, did his thing, and exited before it became tiresome.  But Hollywood has never been an industry of restraint, so Jeong quickly became too much of a good thing, and his extended presence brought down The Hangover trilogy and even the frequently brilliant Community.  So what did the powers that be decide to do with a man whose talents are best suited for very small, supporting roles?  They gave him his own show, of course!  Much of Dr. Ken's lameness comes from Jeong's exhausting, hammy performance at the center.  He's already so broad that the theatricality of the multi-cam format causes him to overdo it, playing to the rafters of a venue down the street.  But the writing doesn't do him any favors either.  Usually, even bad pilots get an accidental laugh or two out of me.  However, I watched Dr. Ken with a stony expression the entire time.  That bit where he's trying to find his daughter Molly in a club, but everyone thinks he's talking about the drug?  Excruciating.  I didn't think I'd have to break out the coveted F this fall, but Dr. Ken more than deserves it.
Grade: F

Grandfathered (Fox, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
More and more these days, network comedies attempt to throw a great cast together and hope everything catches up later.  Such is the case with Fox's Grandfathered, which examines what happens when you toss people like John Stamos, Josh Peck, and Paget Brewster in a pot together and let them cook.  The result is a warm, winning comedy that may not deliver nonstop laughs, but is pretty enjoyable to watch.  I'm glad that they didn't make Stamos' character into as much of an aggressive prick as many other shows would, because I'm very sick of the "jerk learns how to not be a jerk" arc.  At times, though, the pilot feels a little too gentle.  Maybe that's just because I hate babies, and thus was not a fan of any of the baby hijinks that occurred in the middle of this pilot.  Less of that, more of the adults please.
Grade: B

The Grinder (Fox, Tuesday at 8:30 PM)
When all of the trailers for the upcoming network comedies came out a few months ago, The Grinder's was the only one that made me laugh, so I had high hopes for this show.  Now that I've seen the whole pilot, I'll say that my expectations weren't fully met, but this has the ability to grow and become a great comedy.  The Grinder stars Rob Lowe as Dean Sanderson, a Hollywood who moves back to his hometown after his hit legal drama ends.  Thinking that he gained enough knowledge from years of being a TV lawyer, he tries to work at the law firm run by his father (William Devane) and brother (Fred Savage).  It's a premise that asks quite a bit of the viewer, but The Grinder gets away with it by being as wacky and high energy as possible.  Given my enjoyment of this and Life in Pieces, I seem to enjoy wackiness this fall.  Anything is better than all of the personality-free dreck we've been getting.
Grade: B

Quantico (ABC, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Critics have been joking about Quantico, calling it Grey's Academy and How to Get Away With Terrorism, because it feels like it's trying to ape the style of Shonda Rhimes' hit shows on the network.  But although it has the ingredients of a Shonda show, it just doesn't have the intangibles.  The premise is very How to Get Away With Murder, introducing the audience to a group of smart and sexy recruits at the Quantico academy for the FBI, and then flashing forward to some cataclysmic terrorist event that occurs at some point in the future.  But unlike Murder, Quantico isn't nearly as fun, and it doesn't have the energy to make the switching between present and future work.  There's a great show about a team of FBI prospects learning the ropes at Quantico buried in this pilot.  There's also a great show about an FBI agent trying to clear her name after she's falsely accused of being involved with a terrorist attack buried somewhere in here too.  But when they're smashed together like this, both sides suffer, the latter more so than the former.  At least the material at the academy has a nice, tense plot where the recruits are charged with finding out a secret about their assigned partner.  The flash-forward scenes are all mystery and vague plotting, so it's hard to really get invested in.  Still, Quantico has the potential to work out these kinks.  You should give it a shot if you're into the shows this one is clear trying to mimic.
Grade: B-

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 2 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Blindspot (NBC, Mondays at 10:00 PM)
Here's the beginning of the plot description for this show on Hulu: "A vast international plot explodes when a beautiful Jane Doe is discovered naked in Times Square, completely covered in mysterious, intricate tattoos with no memory of who she is or how she got there."  It's a hooky premise that promises a "CRAZY" mystery, but really, who cares?  This is such a convoluted setup that there's no way it's leading anywhere satisfying, so why even be invested in the plot machinations?  Unfortunately, none of the characters provide any reason for you to be invested either.  "Beautiful Jane Doe" is an apt description, given where the show's interests seem to lie, with the pilot often feeling like everyone is trying to find any reason to show off as much of Jaimie Alexander's skin as possible.  I like Alexander, but she's playing a woman who literally has no identity.  It's hard for her to stand out.  People are pegging Blindspot as a Blacklist clone, but at least that pilot had some verve and a great setpiece in the middle.  It took at least three episodes for it to become as tedious as Blindspot already is.
Grade: C

Life in Pieces (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
One of the things that I liked the most about the pilot of CBS' Life in Pieces is also the thing that makes me worried about its future.  The series is centered around one extended family and each episode will chronicle their lives in four short stories.  In the first episode, there's a zaniness to the show that I appreciate in this era where even the good family sitcoms feel a little soft, and part of that can be attributed to this short story gimmick.  That wacky energy wouldn't be sustainable with the common A-B-C plot structure, but these short, snappy, somewhat self-contained segments cut off before a line is crossed.  As a result, I laughed at this much more than I do at most pilots.  Sure, there's some overly broad stuff (all of the material about the state of Zoe Lister-Jones' vagina post-baby delivery), but there's always a chuckle or two to be found in even the most shtick-y moments.  But can this show really do this short story structure every episode? Will it start to feel tiresome soon?  What the pilot gave us makes me interested enough to find out.
Grade: B+

Limitless (CBS, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
Limitless shares a few superficial similarities to Minority Report, another pilot that premiered this week.  They're both based on films, and they both start off by fast-forwarding through the premise of the film to catch up viewers who haven't seen the source material, refresh those who have, and completely bore both parties.  Like Minority Report, Limitless is pretty bland.  The difference between the two is that Limitless is bland in a less interesting way.  This is pretty much a CBS procedural with a little bit of salt and pepper; the premise is just a doorway to the network's usual style.  On one hand, there's some fun to be derived from Brian's (Jake McDorman) discovery of the new skills he has after taking a drug that allows him to use his mind to its fullest potential.  On the other, much of that fun is completely sucked out by the excessive narration from Brian.  Limitless reaches the point of too much narration at about 10 minutes in and then it just keeps going.
Grade: C

Minority Report (Fox, Mondays at 9:00 PM)
You would think that Fox would have given up on sci-fi by now, given its failure with the genre in recent years.  But here they are again with another offering in Minority Report, which feels less like the Steven Spielberg film upon which it's based and more like the network's last blandly competent "It's the future!" show, Almost Human.  Except this is a little more bland and a little less competent.  Kudos to creator Max Borenstein, I guess, for wanting to set the show apart from the film, but it's hard to know why this was named Minority Report at all.  Sure there's still the element of Precrime, the idea that crime can be predicted by precogs before it even happens, but the pilot doesn't do much exploration of the nature and justice of Precrime.  Who knows what this series is really interested in so far.
Grade: C+

The Muppets (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
To be honest, I don't really get The Muppets.  It's likely a generational thing, given that most people who do have affection for them were born were born in the 70s and 80s, and my biggest exposure to the characters was watching episodes of Muppet Babies on Nick Jr. when I took sick days in elementary school.  Given my stance, I wasn't poised to love or hate this as much as the diehards were.  Consequently, I thought this pilot was merely okay.  Kermit and Miss Piggy's breakup has been dominating the press cycle surrounding the show, and it forms the backbone of the premiere, but I can't really generate the energy to care about it.  It turns out that when you apply common storytelling setups and tropes to Muppets instead of humans,'s still boring.  However, I generally like some of the more adult shadings they've given these characters, which has seemed ruffle a few feathers among critics.  Overall, I don't think I'll be tuning in past this pilot, but it did make me chuckle a few times.
Grade: B-

The Player (NBC, Thursdays at 10:00 PM)
The premise of The Player is so ridiculously stupid and complicated that I'm not even sure I can describe it well.  It involves a Person of Interest-esque mysterious system that can predict crime in a style akin to Vegas odds, or something?  Philip Winchester stars as a man recruited to be a "player" in this game of odds, but not before being put through the Standard Protagonist Motivation spin cycle that leaves him with a dead ex-wife in the first few minutes of the episode.  At times, the pilot feels like it's directed by a teenage boy with ADD.  It's all fast cuts and zoom-ins on cars whipping around the road and kicking up smoke.  So far, The Player is a very wacky experience, but everyone involved seems to be acutely aware of how silly it all is.  It turns out knowing is more than half the battle, because the end result is pretty fun.  With the creator, actors, and audience all on the same page, it's easier to strap in and enjoy the ride.  There are times where the pilot gets to be a little exhausting, but it makes up for that with some truly great, kinetic setpieces.  We don't see many breezy actioners of this vein on TV -- probably due to budgetary restrictions -- so I hope The Player is able to keep up the pace.
Grade: B

Rosewood (Fox, Wednesdays at 8:00 PM)
This fall has been pretty dreadful so far.  Not only has there been a lack of great shows to premiere, but there also hasn't been anything that's entertainingly awful.  Rosewood, Fox's new show about a man (Morris Chestnut) who runs a private pathology business in Miami, Florida, is the worst kind of bad pilot.  There isn't much to outright hate in it, but there's absolutely nothing to enjoy about it either.  This is white noise television.  It's derivative -- a little bit of CSI: Miami here, a large chunk of Bones there -- and it's filled with lame banter between Chestnut and the female detective (Jaina Lee Ortiz) he pairs up with and will eventually fall for.  The show is so flavorless that it has to play dramatic music while Chestnut is doing the most boring examination possible.  Of course, they attempt to drum up some long-term drama amidst the case-of-the-week easy viewing, but the way they choose to do it -- by giving Chestnut a congenital heart disease that may kill day -- doesn't have much stakes.  Nothing in Rosewood does.
Grade: D+

Scream Queens (Fox, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Only on a Ryan Murphy show can terrible and brilliant rest so comfortably beside each other.  There are so many moments in Scream Queens, his new show with Glee co-creators Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, that are stupid and annoying.  But then there will be a clever, self-aware scene or a character will say a hilarious line and you'll be back on the show's side again.  After a while, you just accept that you have to sit through some "white mammy" stuff to get to "I got my first boner watching Faces of Death."  Scream Queens is a fascinating animal.  It's hyperactive and grating in the way that all Ryan Murphy shows are.  It's full of characters who are supposed to be awful in an ironic way, but wind up being just awful.  It takes big swings, and sometimes you wonder why, because the pitch it's working with is nowhere near the strike zone.  And yet...I had so much fun watching it.  This is how most people describe American Horror Story, which I can't stand, but something on this show clicks for me.  There's no way Murphy and company can sustain this -- the entertainment levels already started flagging in the second half of the unnecessary two-hour pilot -- but let's enjoy this Glee on cocaine for as long as we can.
Grade: B

Sunday, September 20, 2015

2015 Emmy Award predictions

The 67th Primetime Emmy awards air tonight at 8:00 PM EST, so I figured I'd offer some predictions for how the night will go down.  The Emmys seem a little harder to predict than the Oscars, so I could end up with only a 50% success rate, but that also makes watching the show a little more fun.  As always, there will be some frustrating picks from the voters, but more and more it seems like their choices are falling in line with the critical consensus.  Let's hope that means Modern Family's reign of terror will finally come to an end...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Week 1 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

The Bastard Executioner (FX, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
They say the definition of insanity is choosing to watch another Kurt Sutter show after sitting through the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy.  So I guess I'm a lunatic, because here I am, reviewing the two-hour pilot of The Bastard Executioner.  Set in 14th century Wales, his new series follows Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a knight in King Edward I's army who gives up on war and fighting, until unfortunate circumstances cause him to impersonate an executioner and take up the sword again.  Of course, you wouldn't really know much of this for a while, since the premise of the show doesn't truly kick in until the end of the second hour.  For a majority of the pilot, I couldn't tell you what this show was about.  I could tell you the setting and the characters, but necessarily what it's "about."  Usually, pilots try to get that point across as quickly as possible.  Not so with Kurt Sutter!  Sometimes not playing by the rules can create some surprising, thrilling television.  Often, though, it can create messy and disastrous storytelling.  Executioner feels much more like the latter so far.

Aside from the length of the pilot, Sutter's characteristic indulgence manifests itself in other ways, namely in the violence department.  This is a series where a small child gets his throat cut and a pregnant woman gets stabbed in the stomach and dies in the first episode.  That's the baseline Sutter sets.  When you start with that level of shock and horror, where can you even go from there?  The worst part is that it's empty shock.  Who are these people, really?  Why should we care?  Extreme violence can work if it's stylized, but the violence on display in this pilot feels hollow and gratuitous.

With the plot scenario Sutter sets up, he's positioned The Bastard Executioner to be one of those shows where the protagonist constantly gets painted into a corner, only to somehow get out by the skin of his teeth.  Obviously, we've seen good examples of that with Breaking Bad and even The Shield, on which Kurt Sutter served as a writer for many seasons.  But we've also seen him do it more recently with Sons of Anarchy, whose plot machinations became tiresome and contrived.  So am I ready to see him do it again?  Not really.  Yet something tells me I'm going to keep tuning in anyway...
Grade: C

Moonbeam City (Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10:30 PM)
Moonbeam City, Comedy Central's new animated comedy from creator Scott Gairdner, probably would not have even been on my radar if its art style didn't catch my eye in a promo that aired during a Key & Peele commercial break.  It looks like Archer meets Patrick Nagel, an 80s pastiche with a rich neon color palette and silky smooth animation, and it's such a beauty to look at.  The actual comedy, on the other hand, could use some work.  This pilot feels a little derivative -- its similarities to Archer don't end with character design, it also resembles that series in its premise and storytelling beats.  Dazzle Novak (voiced by Rob Lowe) is basically Sterling Archer if he quit spycraft to become a cop, and you can see alot of the latter in the former's lasciviousness and ability to get results while not really caring about the damage he unleashes in the process.  But Moonbeam City feels like Archer if Archer was 65% less tight and 40% less clever.  The pacing of the pilot feels so airy, it all moves along with very little momentum.  The jokes themselves aren't great -- it's full of obvious punchlines, half-funny mumbled asides, and tiny bits of forced absurdity -- but the speed with which they're delivered is truly ruinous.  Still, with its terrific voice cast (which also includes the likes of Elizabeth Banks, Will Forte, and Kate Mara) and that magnificent artwork, it's easy to give this more of a chance.  Here's to hoping the show finds itself.
Grade: C+

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The low-key greatness of Married's second season

At the most recent TCA press tour, FX president John Landgraf lamented that critics didn't give Married, the shaggy dramedy that debuted on the network last year, enough of a shot before writing it off.  After he made that statement, I saw many live-tweeting TV critics scoff at that notion, but I think he may have been on to something.  When the show began, I gave the pilot a cautiously optimistic review, and I felt much more positively about it than I did about its time block companion, You're the Worst.  Over the course of those two shows' first seasons, I had a reversal of opinion -- You're the Worst became one of my favorite comedies of the year, while Married stumbled around, only sort of finding itself in the finale.  Fast forward to this year and the latter has become one of my favorites of this summer, not necessarily a completely different beast from its previous season, just a better and more refined one.

Many critics' problem with Married last year was that it just wasn't funny enough.  That's true -- the show wasn't very funny in its first season.  But the issue wasn't that it was unfunny, it's that it was a little unpleasant.  Mainly, this was a blight that plagued the central relationship between Russ and Lina, despite the best efforts from the talented Nat Faxon and Judy Greer.  It seemed like the show's mission statement was to live up to its namesake, to show married life as it is truly lived.  Russ and Lina are a couple that have been in love for so long that they almost hate each other, but I think in trying to portray that, season one forgot to show the "in love" part.  It was hard to see any reason why they would still be together, which didn't make them very interesting to watch.

If there's one key difference in season two, it's that Married has found a way to perfectly modulate the unpleasantness that threatened to capsize the show in the first season.  This year, every character is allowed to show more shades to their personality outside of being glum and discontent.  Russ and Lina are still weary from the years of being parents and partners -- sometimes more than ever -- but they also have more moments where they clearly enjoy being around each other and their children.  Just a simple change like that and the show feels so much more vibrant and layered.  It still isn't likely to cause your gut to split open from laughter, but in place of comedy is a deep melancholic streak that feels raw and compelling.  Some moments -- the story with Lina's mother's dementia in "Thanksgiving," Russ and Jess' declining friendship throughout the season, the bitter conflict between Ella and Lina in "Mother's Day" -- don't even seem to be trying to make you laugh and they're all the better for it.

The greatest embodiment of the show's melancholy nature is Lina, who may be one of the most unique and fascinating characters on television.  She's gloomy in a way that you don't often see in unhappy characters, who either suffer from an unrelenting dramatic depression or are comical sadsacks.  Lina is just kind of tired and disappointed in a very real and relatable way.  But that doesn't mean she can't express joy or make jokes either, which she does a few times per episode, much more than in the first season.  In having all of these shades and contrasts, Lina is one of the richest portraits of depression I've ever seen on TV.  Not enough credit can be given to Judy Greer, who plays all of the facets of Lina's character beautifully.  Greer is so brilliant in everything she does, yet she still feels underrated.  Anyone who complained about her bit roles in all of this summer's biggest blockbusters is missing out if they're not watching this showcase of her talents.

Not everybody gets to be as well-served as Greer though.  One of the biggest flaws that continues to hold Married back is that the supporting characters have never really clicked in the way the show wants them to.  Part of that is because they've had to shift the roster around so much, with Jess leaving due to Jenny Slate getting her own show picked up, leaving the writers to give John Hodgman's Bernie a larger role and introduce new characters played by Sarah Burns and Kumiko Glenn.  But it's also because characters like Bernie or A.J. (Brett Gelman) don't always fit the tone the show is striving for with the Russ and Lina stories.  Because of that, it rarely ever has episodes where all of the plots work in equal measure.

Still, the last two weeks have been an improvement in regards to the show's balancing issues.  "Mother's Day" was the best episode of the season so far, partially because it was the first time this year that every plotline completely worked, and the writers found a way to integrate A.J. and Shep (Paul Reiser) so that they felt like a vital part of the proceedings.  This past week's superb "Guardians" did the same thing for Jess.  Due to Slate's limited availability, Jess' arc has been pretty wonky, rushing her story and then awkwardly trying to justify her absence from the middle section of the season.  But "Guardians" leaned into her hiatus and the inevitability of her character being written off of the show, and used it to their advantage, spinning it into a story about her growing apart from Russ and everybody else who previously tolerated her.  Jess is a frustrating and selfish person, but her pain from feeling alienated and unwanted was devastating, and Slate (who proved her dramatic talents in last year's excellent Obvious Child) gave a performance that made it sting even more.

Married is never going to blow anyone away; it's far too low-key for that.  But TV doesn't always need to blow you away.  What Married often achieves, a subtle satisfaction, is impressive in its own right.  Give this another shot if you checked out at some point in season one.  It's one of the most underrated shows airing right now.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Depression Cherry" reveals subtle new shades in Beach House's sonic palette

Music enthusiasts get bored very easily.  Concoct a sound that excites and engages people the first time around, and you just might find yourself getting bored and disappointed reactions if you try the same thing a few years later.  It's a miracle, then, that Beach House has been able to a critical darling for so long, given their firm stance on not changing their sound.  They entered the world in 2006 with a specific musical sensibility on their debut album, and on the three albums they released afterward -- each two years after the previous one -- they expanded their sonic range incrementally with every new offering.  Tiny as they may have been, those additions were just enough to keep them on the right side of the critical tide, and though there has been some grumbling in recent years about their signature sound, most listeners haven't tired of it.

More so than ever before, people are going to tell you that their latest album Depression Cherry is the point where Beach House has finally become stale, that they haven't changed things up enough this time around.  This review is here to tell you that those people are wrong.  It's an understandable viewpoint, however -- the band's trajectory has been marked by a slow swelling of their sound, but Depression Cherry pares things back from the widescreen dream pop of the veritable Bloom.  Though they may have scaled down, the album doesn't feel like a step backward.  A new, eerie sci-fi tinge runs through songs like "Beyond Love," which centers around a crystalline guitar line that could puncture granite.  It's clear that the duo is cognizant of these influences in "Space Song," a track whose floaty weightlessness sounds like the score to walking on the surface of the moon for the first time.

And how could anybody accuse an album that contains "Sparks" of not being exciting enough?  There's a reason why it was chosen as the first single; it feels as if it's charging out of your speakers from the first note.  My Bloody Valentine has always been a band that Beach House has made wide circles around, but they've never targeted them in the way that "Sparks," with its squealing guitar line and smeared synths, does.  It's a dazzling, interesting new direction for them to take.

As ever, lead singer Victoria Legrand's voice is the force that pulls you into these songs.  After all these years, her vocals still have that ineffable ability to lull you into a trance.  She's less likely to let out a full-mouthed howl than she was on previous albums; this time around her voice has a soft, pillowy effect, resting deep within the Yamaha wash.  Legrand's showcase is without a doubt album-centerpiece "PPP," a towering beauty of a track where she alternates between bewitching spoken word verses and a haunting sway in the chorus.  She has a way of drilling her melodies into your head, until that soft coo is rattling around in the deepest recesses of your brain.  In contrast, the actual words she sings have a slightly impenetrable quality to them.  But that doesn't make them off-putting, it just adds to the aura and mystique of these songs about the inscrutable nature of love and desire.

The songs on Depression Cherry are a little more subtle than Beach House has been in their last few offerings.  Again, it's not hard to see why many are confusing it as a letdown, but the true pleasures of this record hide in the pockets and corners of songs.  Tracks build quietly, melodies and hooks sneak around just below the surface, only becoming crystal clear after a dozen listens.  You may have to walk a longer way to reach the rewards of this album, but once you get there, it will welcome you with open arms.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Love, happiness, and the beautiful lie of UnREAL

There was a directorial move that happened over and over in the first season of UnREAL, Lifetime's excellent new series about the behind-the-scenes workings of a Bachelor-esque reality show called Everlasting.  A scene would start with a tight shot of a moment between members of Everlasting's cast, and just as it starts to feel like a genuine point of connection, the camera peels back to show the artifice behind it all.  Just beyond that real moment is an array of lights, cameras, and crew; all peering intently, trying to figure out how they can warp this scene into something that will provide the most entertaining television.

Every character has to remind themselves and the people around them that they're crafting a show, with almost every episode featuring some variation of the line "none of this is real anyway."  But is it quite so simple?  Sure, there's manufactured drama and contrived scenarios galore in UnREAL and Everlasting.  Yet there are real stories unfolding too.  A mentally ill woman desperately trying to cling to her job and her sanity at the same time, a repressed woman coming to terms with her sexuality, a rich playboy seeking redemption.  Therein lies the magnificent tension of the show, the way that reality tends to bleed all over "reality."

UnREAL is a deeply cynical show.  It offers a glimpse at the top-down process of a group of ruthless, ratings-minded people packaging up the myth of True Love to an American audience that will eat it up.  They've gotten to a point where they can predict how the public will react to every event, coming up with preset rules to follow: "sluts get cut," black women never win, the suitor that all of these women are competing for has to be likable.  In last Monday's season finale, executive producer Chet thinks he's come up with an incredible idea -- having bad girl Britney come back in the final round after an early exit at the beginning of the season -- only to be reminded that the show has done the very same thing three previous times.  Everlasting is programmed to a tee, but sold under the illusion that it's getting bigger and better and fresher.

The producers of Everlasting are the means by which the show is able to concoct the best possible results.  And the contestants are merely their playthings -- twist them up and watch them go.  But the level of gamesmanship goes beyond that.  Everybody is producing everybody.  As a result, there is plotting to the show in the truest sense.  Many of the best moments come from the complex web of deceit the writers spin: a character manipulating another character into manipulating another character; or somebody thinking they know the game somebody else is playing, only for that person to be playing a second game.  Lies, both big and small, are being sold everywhere.

And perhaps the biggest lie of all is the idea that any of these people can find happiness and fulfillment, either professionally or romantically.  If that's the goal, then they're searching in the wrong place.  After all, some of these women are looking for love in front of a camera, and the audience on the other side watches with hope that somebody will find it too.  One of the most brilliant aspects of the season finale is that even Quinn and Rachel start to buy into the lies they sell, mistakenly thinking that they've found something real in Chet and Adam, respectively.  You may not be able to find love in a hopeless place, but UnREAL deftly fools everyone into believing they can.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

On Paper Towns and years of being a John Green fan

Back in my senior year of high school my English teacher, in an effort to learn more about what students read outside of the requirements for class, gave us an assignment to come in the next day with one of our favorite books in order to present it to the rest of the class.  I had just recently finished reading Looking For Alaska, the Printz Award-winning debut novel from John Green, and to say it had an effect on me would be a massive understatement.  Starting from my early childhood and continuing into my teenage years, I was a voracious reader, and nothing had come close to hypnotizing and shattering me in the same way this did.  Every new piece of art tends to be "life-changing" when you're that young, but it really felt like I was a different person after reading Alaska.  (It turns out I only became a more obnoxious person.  Months later, I would just write "How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?" in 95% of my classmates' yearbooks at the end of the school year.)

The only thing I wanted to do was talk about Looking For Alaska and the genius who created it with anybody who would listen, so this simple English assignment felt like a godsend to me.  At this point, nobody in my class had heard of John Green, so they just listened with mild interest as I breathlessly spewed factoids about Green's writing.  My enthusiasm was, however, enough to make my highly critical teacher give it a shot.  (She liked it just fine.)

Now, I wasn't exactly early on the John Green train.  By the time I had gotten around to discovering Looking for Alaska in 2009/2010, it had already been almost five years old, and Green had amassed a sizable online following via vlogbrothers, a Youtube channel he started with his brother Hank in 2007.  Still, he was not yet the man who would later appear on the Time 100 list, and judging from the blank stares I got when I talked about Alaska in my AP English class, his reach hadn't quite stretched to my peers.  So John Green still felt like my own special thing.  I couldn't get enough of his work, moving on to An Abundance of Katherines, then Paper Towns, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I even devoured Let It Snow, the charming Christmas story he co-wrote with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle.  Despite being a slow reader, I could always finish his books in a few sittings, because I was so rapt by his style and characters.  I didn't just enjoy reading his novels, I wanted to live inside of them.

Weirdly enough, I didn't even find out about vlogbrothers until a few months after my newfound John Green obsession.  When I was re-reading Looking For Alaska, I saw a link to the YouTube channel in the About the Author portion near the back of the book, and was confused but intrigued (and completionist) enough to check it out.  Discovering vlogbrothers felt like having my love of John Green busted wide open.  My favorite author had a video series with his brother, and they had built a whole community of fans called Nerdfighters, built around the values of charity and empathy and passion.  Over the course of a few weeks over summer break, I poured through the hundreds of materials in the vlogbrothers backlog, addicted to these funny, entertaining, and sincere little videos.  And of course, the idea of Nerdfighteria appealed to me.  Here was this group of people all around the world with similar interests and worldviews, people who wouldn't listen with only minimal attention as somebody spewed factoids about John Green and his books.  I participated in Nerdfighter forums, followed along with the annual Project For Awesome charity event, and felt like being a Nerdfighter was truly a part of my identity.

Eventually, I outgrew the community.  I just couldn't maintain the level of earnestness and passion that seems to be at the core of Nerdfighteria, as much as I respect it.  It seemed like all of the people who were in the first few generations of the community grew out of it a little too, replaced by a generation who was about the same age we were when we first started following John Green.  That level of fandom seemed best suited for teens, a demographic I was slowly aging out of.  And truthfully, the community was growing too big and unwieldy to feel a part of in the same way that I did in the first few years. My relationship with Nerdfighteria had become detached and complicated, but at least my feelings about Green and his work remained pure.

That is, until the Fault in Our Stars craze began.  I pre-ordered and loved the book when I read it, and in the coming weeks after that, it seemed very clear that this was the tipping point for John Green.  It received rave reviews from prestigious publications, selling like gangbusters, and making waves that reverberated way beyond the diehards.  Anybody still under the illusion that this story would their personal little possession would be convinced otherwise by the hit movie that followed the very next year.  While I loved the film, I also recognized it as the moment the idea of John Green split in two.  There was the John Green that I knew inside and out, and there was the John Green that people only knew through the massive phenomenon of the Fault movie.  Those in the latter category might not even know who Green himself is, only the general brand that he represents.

Naturally, with widespread popularity comes a whole cadre of haters.  They existed before Green's breakout success, but a whole new breed seemed to crop up about two years ago.  It's fine to be critical of the guy's work, but lately it seems like people find his entire existence offensive.  Accustations have been made that he's a soulless business-minded pest and a creep who preys on teenage girls, and I just find that baffling.  It's hard to go anywhere on the internet and read an article about something John Green-related without seeing a bilious pile-on in the comments section, which makes me so sad.  So in a way, this burgeoning fame has made me a fiercer defender of Green, if only because I feel it to be necessary.  How can anybody view him as anything other than a kind and charitable dude?

But just as well, John Green's celebrity has caused me to feel a little alienated too.  He has so many fans that I feel like I have to share my once boundless enthusiasm with more and more people.  So I get smaller and smaller portions of him.  It's fine that people like him, but it's come at the expense of his work feeling like something that's personal and intimate to me.  Sure, that makes me a little selfish, but I can't help the way I feel.

Perhaps the best way to describe my disconnect with Green is with an anecdote.  I was at dinner with my best friend recently and at a certain point, I pulled out my cell phone to check something.  When I did that, she noticed the case on my phone and asked me what it was from.  The case in question is filled references from The Fault in Our Stars.  I bought it for a few reasons: I think it looks cool; DFTBA records, the online store owned by John and Hank Green, makes it so that the fans and friends who create the products they sell make most of the profit; and I like to show support for John Green even if I'm not as invested in his fandom as I was when I was younger.  I told her what book/film it was from and a quick look that said "Really?" flashed across her face, before she mentioned that she saw the movie and liked it.  She then pinpointed the big "Okay? Okay." clouds in the middle and said "I remember that part."  And that was it.  I wanted to explain away that "Really?," to tell her about how deep my connection to the book and John Green runs, to let her know that I've honestly never even liked the "Okay? Okay." moment that much.  But to so many people, that's what The Fault in Our Stars is, so I just kind of let it go.  It's moments like this that make me feel a little bit of distance from Green and his work, almost as a way of protecting myself.

Still, there are things that make me feel connected to John Green in the way that I used to be.  Strange as it may seem, the primary source is a video series on an offshoot YouTube channel where he plays the soccer video game FIFA.  The results of each match are fairly repetitive, and John is a terrible FIFA player, but there's something that I find soothing and wildly entertaining about them.  He just tells stories and answers questions and creates a whole fictional universe for the team he's playing with and I love it so much.  Most of my college experience was miserable and stressful, but The Miracle of Swindon Town helped get me through those tough times.  Waiting for a new video to pop up at 10:00 am every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday was something of a centering force for me.  But most importantly, it's such a niche series that only a small portion of Nerdfighteria follows it, so it's easy to get that nostalgic rush of feeling like you're apart of something tight-knit and special.

Mostly, though, I find myself mourning the days when my feelings about John Green were pure and unsullied by both his fame and my aging.  That's something that has especially been swirling around my brain in these months prior to the release of the film adaptation of Paper Towns.  With any book that you enjoy, it's always scary for it to be translated into a film.  Some of your favorite parts may be altered, portions could get cut out entirely, your mental image of the characters will forever be changed to the actors who portray them in the movie.  But with your favorite books, there's an even bigger chunk that gets taken away.  Nothing can be as special as your first time experiencing a piece of art.  The release of The Fault in Our Stars, enjoyable as it was, irrevocably changed my relationship with the book.  Was I really ready to go through that again, only a year later?

So I just couldn't manage to get all that excited about the Paper Towns movie.  I tend to stay away from trailers, so I never saw more than a few seconds of previews for the film, but the little of what I saw and heard didn't do much to assuage my fears.  Luckily, I enjoyed the actual finished product quite a bit.  In a way, it's the exact thing I needed at this point in my life of being a John Green fan.  Much like I was grieving the end of my youth via my changing relationship with Green, this film is about saying goodbye to your youth by embracing the empathy and understanding that comes with adulthood.

But before it can do that, Paper Towns captures all of the small and specific things that can make being a teen so wonderful, and the best moments are the lived-in scenes of characters being friends and hanging out.  That's keeping in spirit with Green's writing -- he's always been better at character and vibe than plot.  There's a plot in Paper Towns, to be sure -- guy loves girl, girl disappears, road trip ensues -- but it's all just an excuse for some hilarious and poignant interactions between the main characters.

Each member of the ensemble has a way of revealing themselves to be more than what the world would usually assume them to be.  In fact, it's the main theme of the film, that nobody is an archetype, that they're full of colors and stripes and smudges that make them three dimensional individuals.  Radar and Angela would just be the sidekick black couple without anything consequential to do in any other film, but the movie carves out two significant scenes where they're allowed to have their own story that in no way serves Q's narrative.  People box Lacey into the role of the beautiful blond bombshell, but she's also smart, kind, and caring; and she desperately wants that side of herself to be recognized.  Ben, who seems like the overly confident clown at first...well, he's mostly just that.

If there's a major flaw in the Paper Towns, then, it's the one character it somewhat fails in that regard: Margo.  The entire point of the film is Q coming to terms with the fact that he spent all of these years failing to acknowledge Margo's personhood, which he finally does in the climax of the film.  Over time, I've really grown to love the ending of the book, but the movie doesn't manage to stick the landing in the same way.  We're handed this message that Margo is her own person, not just a mystery for Q to solve, but we never get a sense of who that person is or why we should care.  So instead of feeling like the revelation it does in the book, the ending just feels like a lecture.  Part of that is due to the constraints of turning a 345 page book into a 100 minute film, which was always going to result in a flattening of Margo's interior, but the conclusion is just as undone by the tweaks made in the circumstances under which Q finds Margo.  In the book, their reunion feels much sadder -- the gang finds her living in a dilapidated old barn, dirty and alone, and you really get a sense of how selfish she is for running away without considering the consequences.  You gain a much better understanding of who she is when it stands in stark contrast with Q's rose-tinted romanticizing.  Compare that to the serene nothingness of the moment in the film, and the latter feels much less effective.

Nonetheless, there are more than enough enjoyable moments to outweigh a few minor quibbles.  During the night of pranks sequence that opens the film, I felt like I had been transported back to high school, when I read that section of the book for the first time and was amazed that a novel could have such an energizing, rollicking start.  I was reminded of my favorite lines -- "The Rhode Island of penises," "Your friendship with Margo sleeps with the fishes," etc. -- many of which I had forgotten I loved so much.  A great adaptation can stand on its own.  A good adaptation just has to be comforting, by presenting you with things you already know you like.  Paper Towns is only a good adaptation, but I'm completely at peace with that.  We're now two out of two with good adaptations of John Green books -- us fans should consider ourselves lucky.

Which brings us back to where we started.  With the success of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns (albeit a softer-than-expected opening from the latter), and John Green's star continuing to rise, Looking For Alaska is next in line to be adapted.  And even though I'm pretty positive on these last two adaptations, I desperately don't want a Looking For Alaska film to happen.  Fault and Towns are good, but I need Alaska to be perfect, and if it's going to be anything less than that I don't want it at all.  The Fault in Our Stars being made into a film felt like such an inevitability that I was quickly able to tell myself, "Okay, the world can have this one and only this one."  When Paper Towns rolled around, I rationalized that it's not my favorite Green novel, so I could deal with an adaptation that might not live up to the source material.  But Looking For Alaska is just too personal to me.  I can't deal with a single piece of miscasting, any tweaked themes, or the movie becoming such a success that the perception of the story gets reduced and simplified.

The worst part is that the best possible version of a movie was waved in front of our faces and then snatched away.  At one point, Sarah Polley was attached to write and direct the film, and for the first time I felt okay with the idea of it existing.  Polley is on the shortlist of my favorite directors working right now, and her brilliant trio of films Away From Her, Take This Waltz, and Stories We Tell show a talent for empathy, emotional nuance, and micro moments.  She's one of the few filmmakers who could make what I define as a great adaptation of the material.  I wouldn't even mind her changing the story, because I know her alterations would be different and thoughtful.  While I don't know anything concrete, I suspect she was planning to do just that, and the pushback she received is what caused her to quietly leave the project.  All I know is we'll never see Sarah Polley's version of Looking For Alaska, and that seems like such a major injustice.

There are some fans of the Harry Potter books out there who have never seen any of the movies, and for a while I couldn't wrap my head around that.  But now that I have all of these books that are so close to my heart being made into films, I can understand the reasoning.  Lately, I've toyed around with the idea of just not seeing Looking For Alaska when it comes out, because it's the only way to ensure that I preserve my strongest tie to John Green and his work.  But at the end of the day, I know I'm going to see it.  Because no matter how much older I get, how much more famous he becomes, or how much we both change, I'll always be a fan.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is a bewitching rumination on age and fame

Examinations of Hollywood have been done to a point past death.  For as long as Tinseltown has existed, it seems as if there have been movies about the ins and outs of the industry.  In a sea of savage satires and aspirational tales, it's hard to make anything about this particular setting/subject that's fresh and exciting.  But Clouds of Sils Maria, the newest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas, manages to do just that, by creating a story that's a conversation about Hollywood, but takes place a whole ocean away from the city of angels.  It's a languid, melancholy film that cloisters itself away, then explores the itch that manifests from that isolation.

At the heart of this itch is Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging international actress, known for her work on both the screen and stage.  The film begins with her learning of the death of her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, the man who wrote a play called Maloja Snake (which later became a film).  Maria achieved breakout success for her role in both the play and film as Sigrid; a young, callous businesswoman who has a complicated and troubled relationship with Helena, her vulnerable older colleague.  Though her career remained fruitful for a while, it's clear that Sigrid was Maria's defining role, and the well of new projects is beginning to dry up.  When a prominent new theater director presents the idea of a modern version of Maloja Snake, this time with a now-aging Maria playing the role of Helena, she reluctantly accepts.

In the play, Sigrid and Helena's tempestuous relationship leads to an ambiguous ending for Helena, but one that could be easily be interpreted as a suicide.  And in a grim matter of life imitating art, the actress who played opposite Maria during Maloja Snake's first run killed herself a year later.  It's obvious that all of this, along with the recent death of Snake's creator, weighs on Maria.  The act of taking up the role of Helena almost seems like a dare to herself, an ultimate acting test that she wants to see if she can pass.  But as the reality of the part and the play begins to seep in, it becomes apparent that Maria is not at peace with this character, mostly because she's not at peace with herself.  She's fighting her age and the possibility of her irrelevance, the latter of which is partially caused by her own unwillingness to engage with various elements of modern culture, from Hollywood blockbusters to the entire internet.

Following Maria around Europe while she prepares for the revamped Maloja Snake is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), her young and dedicated personal assistant, on whom Maria depends a borderline toxic amount.  Maria and Val's dynamic forms the backbone of the film with its endless fascinations and layers.  It's a union that's part work relationship, part friendship, and part unspoken emotional tug of war.  The ways in which those different parts swap in and blend together throughout Clouds is absolutely riveting.  Binoche is characteristically wondrous as Maria, but it's Stewart who ends up stealing the show with an astonishing performance.  In fact, it often feels like there's no performance at all, that Val is a real person and not just an assumed role.  Stewart has been accused of being a charisma vacuum in the past, but here she pivots around those qualities to push out a serene naturalism that fits in nicely with the film's laconic rhythms.

Nobody will try to make the case that Clouds of Sils Maria is a subtle film.  Clearly, the Maloja Snake (a meteorological phenomenon that causes a plume of fog to pass through the Alps) and Maloja Snake (the fictional play within the film) are symbolic of Maria, who seems reluctant to accept inevitabilities.  The film itself could also be a meta-commentary on artists like Juliette Binoche and Olivier Assayas, both of whom have long since past the first act of their careers.  Yet the lack of subtlety has a subtlety of its own.  The play initially presents itself as being about the contrast between Maria and the up-and-coming Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Moretz), who has signed on to play the role Maria did when she was in her 20s, but then shifts to resemble shades of Maria and Val's relationship.  That constantly coiling meta nature of the film leads to these rehearsal scenes between Maria and Val in the middle portion, where it's hard to tell when they're pulling from the text of Maloja Snake and when they're pulling resentment and anxieties from their own hearts.

Save a few mesmerizing touches, Assayas keeps his direction unfussy, but he remains probing nonetheless.  One of the crucial elements is that the movie doesn't take Maria's side on art and the modern age.  Assayas smartly allows Stewart's character to be there to defend mainstream Hollywood films, so it doesn't seem like he's some grumpy old snob grousing about the current state of things.  Instead, Clouds feels like Assayas is really trying to search within and have a conversation with himself about his career and the industry he's in.  And he ends it on a daring ellipsis for himself and Maria.  Maybe she'll finally embrace her age and accept the necessities involved in staying relevant.  Or maybe she'll disappear and never be heard from again, just like Helena at the end of Maloja Snake.